Since Columbine, law enforcement active shooter response has evolved from surround and wait for SWAT to first responder rapid intervention. My last two SWAT columns have been devoted to the discussion of immediate intervention by first responders acting alone. Now, let’s discuss the role of SWAT during these incidents.
In Columbine’s wake, the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) developed the rapid deployment first-responder team tactic currently in use throughout the nation. But in many, if not most, departments, officers from the SWAT team conduct the active shooter training program.
Which raises the question of SWAT’s role in active shootings. Will it be as trainers? Will it be as mop up?
I say that SWAT’s role is likely to be in the thick of the battle. I say that because most SWAT teams are part-time units with SWAT personnel dispersed throughout the department. This means there is a strong likelihood that trained, equipped SWAT officers will be among the first responders on scene at an active shooter incident.
There was a time when many agencies kept all SWAT equipment and weaponry locked in the station. This took away the advantages of having SWAT officers on the street. I would hope that today, these same agencies recognize the life-saving advantage of appropriately arming and equipping their street SWAT personnel.
Conversely, all SWAT officers are duty bound—by their training, equipment, and weaponry—to be the tactical leaders for their agencies. My experience is that street officers look to SWAT for their tactical leadership. As SWAT officers, we need to step up to the plate. If we do, our colleagues at the scene will follow.
The tactical leadership role of SWAT officers should be by design and enthusiastically endorsed by their departments’ leadership, preferably in writing. This will ensure that the entire agency is on the same page, working as one team.
This is also true with full-time SWAT teams who, contrary to the mistaken opinion of some, don’t just sit around waiting for the “big one.” Full-time teams have the luxury of being SWAT all day, every day. This luxury provides them the important advantage of having more time to be SWAT officers than their part-time counterparts.
Many full-time SWAT teams today are assigned crime suppression street duty, when not on missions or training. The result is that SWAT is often on the street, working in squads, with equipment and weaponry at the ready. I vividly recall numerous times that the team I served in responded as a squad to assist uniformed and plainclothes officers. And I can guarantee you the sight of a full van of SWAT officers on scene is welcomed by any officer needing assistance and a dreaded by bad guys.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the transit officer that my unit assisted in Cleveland one day. She was engaged in a knock-down-drag-out fight at a bus stop on a busy major thoroughfare. No one had bothered to call 911 to report the officer fighting for her life. My team was returning from a drug raid when we saw what was happening. The suspect never heard our van’s brakes and never knew what hit him. It was pure luck that we were in the right place at the right time to help an officer in trouble.
First responders facing an active shooter are in trouble. They may be able to handle it themselves, but they will welcome your help whether you serve on a full-time team or spend most of your time performing duties outside of SWAT.
Active shooter response predictably will continue to evolve for the foreseeable future. Integral to that evolution is the first responder-SWAT partnership. We need to work together to continue improving active shooter response.
Two recent active shooting incidents serve as prime examples of the effectiveness of this partnership. During the Salt Lake City Trolley Square Mall incident, an armed off-duty officer from nearby Ogden engaged an active shooter who was armed with a shotgun. Officer Kenneth Hammond drew the shooter’s attention and his fire to save defenseless victims. The rapid arrival of Salt Lake officers, including the city’s SWAT team, resulted in a coordinated neutralization of the suspect.
A less publicized incident occurred several years ago at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. In this incident, a heavily armed male, wearing body armor and a helmet, smashed his way into a college building, killing one person and wounding two. University officers responded quickly, immediately exchanging fire with the suspect. Their fast actions bought time for city police to respond. SWAT was on scene in 10 minutes, ironically after conducting active shooter first responder training. SWAT then engaged the suspect in a seven-hour cat and mouse series of gun battles before finally wounding and capturing him.
In both instances, the first responders bought time for help to arrive by immediately engaging the suspects. Since time is not on our side with active shooters, buying time helps reverse the suspect’s initial advantage. Effective response starts with the first responders, but continues with SWAT. The combination forms a potent, effective team that can prevail against the most determined adversaries.